Raise your hand if you’ve been here: It’s Friday night and for the last week you have been an absolute paragon of virtue. You’ve gone 6.5 days without falling down a single Instagram hole.
When you’re waiting in line, avoiding conversation on the bus, killing time while the coffee brews – you’ve manged to resist the siren song of that pink square.
But then you get a notification that you have a direct message. So you log in to see the meme your friend sent and that’s it. You’re off to the races. You’re stalking your ex. You’re hate-watching Instagram stories from your high school nemesis. An hour passes and you emerge bleary-eyed and ashamed. You screwed up, so you might as well give up. You throw away the week of progress, decide that you’re just not the sort of person who can give up social media, and wonder why you even bother trying. Are you nodding along? Giving up on a goal, a resolution, or a habit when we ‘screw up’ is SO COMMON. In fact, it’s one of the most common questions I get in my workshops!
Here’s what to do instead.
How not to give up when you ‘screw up’ on your goals
My friend and I are chatting over Skype, drinking coffee together in different time zones. We’re talking about the coming year and all our wishes, dreams, and the changes we want to make. I’m twisting my needs-to-be-washed hair around my finger while she lists out evvvvvvvverything she wants to change starting on January 1st.
“Sarah, I’m going to totally reboot my life,” she says, leaning closer to the camera. “Number 1: no more white carbs. Number 2: no more social media after 8 pm. Number 3: half an hour of yoga every morning. Number 4: lunch with a friend every week.”
She keeps going, counting everything off on her fingers and then laughs. “And it all begins on January 1st! I’m like one of those women’s magazine covers: New Year, New You!”
Reader, I’m going to tell you exactly what I told her.
You probably don’t want to hear it and I’m not sure you’ll read this elsewhere but I’m saying it anyway: OMG ONLY TAKE ON ONE THING AT A TIME.
Why you should only take on one resolution, goal, or habit at a time
Humans have a limited amount of self-control they can exert in a day
The fancy psychological term for this is “ego depletion” but even if I didn’t reference studies and doctors, I know you’ve witnessed this in your own life. You eat virtuous salads all day and then mow an entire tube of cookie dough at 8 pm. You resist the siren song of social media all day, only to fall down an Instagram hole after dinner. You make it through coffee break, lunch break, and even happy hour without a cigarette … and then you find yourself standing outside at 10 pm, huffing on a Marlboro. When we take on seven different goals at the same time, we’re simply asking too much of ourselves. We’re asking our brains and bodies to exert more self-control than we have available. There is no human alive who has enough self-control to simultaneously pursue the goals of starting the day with a run, skipping coffee, drinking a smoothie, not checking Facebook, not gossiping with a colleague, making a healthy dinner from scratch, not watching tv, and then laying out their outfit for the next day.
There are certainly people who do those things every day BUT THEY WORKED UP TO THAT ISH. They developed the habit of running every day and once that habit was solidified, then they added the smoothie. After they’d been drinking smoothies every day for, like, three months then they weaned themselves off coffee.
I know slow and gradual change is less sexy than immediate transformation, but it’s a million times more likely to stick.
Humans have a limited number of decisions they can make in a day
Again, there’s a psychological term for this (“decision fatigue”). Again, I’m sure you’ve yelled “I don’t know, you decide!” at someone when it comes to dinner plans. When we’re forced to make lots of decisions, the quality of our decisions degrades dramatically. If you’re asking yourself to decide
when to work out
which workout to do
what to wear to the gym
When to go to the gym
Which smoothie to make
What type of salad to make for lunch
What to do instead of using Facebook
What to talk about other than your shocking co-worker
Where to find energy that’s not in a caffeinated form
What healthy dinner to cook
What to do other than watch tv
Welp, you’re probably going to run out of decision juice pretty early on.
When we set a million goals we’re more likely to fail and failing solidifies those narratives of “I can’t keep my resolutions” and “I can’t break this bad habit”
If I’ve tried and failed to give up pizza rolls on 17 different occasions, it makes sense that I’d believe I’m incapable of giving up pizza rolls.
If I’ve attempted to take up running (and then given it up) every year for five years, OBVIOUSLY I’ll think I’m bad at keeping resolutions.
The more frequently we engage in a behavior, the more it becomes part of our identity and our personal narrative. The more more often we think something or do something, the more likely we are to think it or do it again in the future.
Every time I think “I can’t stick to resolutions” I’m making it less likely that I’ll ever stick to a resolution in the future.
So when I take on a million different resolutions at once, I’m more likely to fail, more likely to reinforce this negative narrative about myself, and more likely to fail again in the future! Have I convinced you?!!
How people screw this up
We think we’re the exception to the rule
“Sure, Sarah. I understand that other people shouldn’t take on 23 new resolutions at a time but I’m not like other people!! My neurology is literally different from other humans and all the research those psychologists did applies to everyone other than me!!!”
Type A overachiever: I see you and I’m calling you out. I know you’re reading this, nodding, and still planning on taking on a million resolutions. I know you think that you can change 13 habits at a time.
The music at First Avenue is eardrum-ruining loud and – like an idiot – I’ve forgotten ear plugs. After a few songs I can’t enjoy because I’m certain I’m going deaf, I push my way towards the bathroom. I’m convinced I can fashion makeshift ear protection from tiny, wadded up pieces of toilet paper.
And it is there, in the bathroom stall at a music venue, that I see a quote that changes the way the way I navigate my professional and creative life:
I ignore the profanities and graffiti surrounding this gem and stumble back into the music, thinking about this. If I am what I do every day, what things should I be doing every day? What kind of life do I want and what can I do every day to help me get there?
I thought about this, friends. I thought about it for the rest of the concert. I thought about it as I drove home. I thought about it as I lay in bed, squinting at the ceiling.
And then I slowly and systematically started to create habits that support theprofessional and creative life I want.
It’s an overcast Tuesday night and it’s happening again.
I’ve been horizontal for two hours now, slowing eating my way through a bag of pizza rolls. The sheet pan lies on the floor and my laptop sits on the coffee table, both within easy reach so I can alternate between eating cheesy pillows of goo and clicking through 90s music videos on Youtube.
Pizza roll. No Diggity. Pizza roll. The Boy Is Mine. Pizza Roll. Karma Police.
This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. For a 1.5 year window, this pizza roll + music video binge became, well, a habit. Whenever the stars aligned (the weather was bad, Kenny was gone, and I’d worked too hard) I’d find myself on the couch. Somehow, there would be pizza rolls in my mouth and *NSYNC in my ear.
Did you notice how I phrased that paragraph? As though I was powerless? As though this bad habit ‘happened’ to me and I didn’t have any control over it or myself? AS THOUGH A BAG OF PIZZA ROLLS IS SMARTER THAN ME?
Friends, it’s time to have a brutally honest conversation about bad habits and why we “can’t” break them.
Please raise your hand if your daily routine looks anything like mine:
Drink virtuous breakfast smoothie. Resist the urge to eat an entire package of fake bacon. Write an ambitious but doable to-do list. Dutifully wash my breakfast dishes. Make my bed. Resist the urge to crawl back into bed.
Make a sooooomewhat virtuous lunch while listening to podcasts. Check Instagram but for, like, a reasonable amount of time. Keep plugging away at big project. Resist urge to fall down a Facebook hole. Take the dog for a walk. Resist the desire to stop at the bakery and buy/eat 15 donut holes.
Eat a virtuous salad. Hate the stupid salad and then make a giant bowl of pasta. Open laptop to just “research something super quick” and fall down a social media hole for two hours. Stand in the kitchen, mindlessly eating peanut butter from the jar while looking at the yard and thinking about how fat the squirrels are. Try to go to bed at a reasonable time but stay up talking till 11:30.
Yes? Yes. But did you know there’s a reason why we do this? Why our self-control slowly crumbles as the day passes?
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